Visual Literacy (Some Thoughts on Pinterest)

Jeff Penfold

I think of bibliographies simply as a list of the sources an author used in writing their work. Like most students I have often used bibliographies to lead me to new sources for assignments. However, before I looked at the Pinterest bibliography for our project I never considered that the presentation style of the bibliography could be used to find new patterns and connections in the sources, I always thought of that as being my task and the bibliography was simply a tool that followed a fixed format. It was looking at the Pinterest bibliography that made me think of this in a new light. Maybe there is a different way to use the bibliography, effectively making it into a better tool for processing information.

When I was looking at the sources on Pinterest I found myself looking at them in a different way than I did when I looked at the same list in a traditional bibliography. I use a traditional bibliography to point me towards new sources, the Pinterest bibliography had me seeing the titles in new patterns and making new connections between titles that I probably would not have in traditional bibliography. However, this idea could be taken even further than our example. In Pinterest the images are presented in the order you upload them. This is not problematic for the author since they can choose the order but I can’t help wondering what could be gained if it was possible to re-order the list. I am picturing a bibliography that any user could not only re-order but present in a manner that suited them and their project. Beyond that, have these new and different bibliographic orders saved so that subsequent users could access them; I believe in turn this would lead these new users to new and different patterns in the information. If the goal of literacy is the exchange of information, then any tool that enables people to organize and share information in new ways and allows people to find new patterns should be seen as a positive step forward.

I should make clear that I don’t consider the Pinterest bibliography in itself an example of post-literacy as it is still tied directly to reading and writing. However, I find it to be a new and interesting approach to an old concept in writing and publishing. By allowing users to find and explore new patterns in existing information, it is perhaps a brief glimpse of how a new tool can be used to more efficiently share information and this is at the core of what I think of as post-literacy.



Digital Lightboxes
Laurie Near

The Pinterest bibliography brings to mind digital lightboxes used on commercial stock photography Websites. Users from a variety of industries, including publishing, film, advertising, and corporate communications, search these sites for images to license for their projects. On most of them, users create their own lightboxes and search the image databases according to their own criteria and needs, both creative and budgetary. Some stock photography companies offer visual research services – a second set of eyes to help find that perfect image. The monitor display size limits the area of sight for all searchers. How many rows, and how many columns provide the optimal viewing experience? How many images can your eyes see and your brain process at once?

A previous limitation in the analog world was the physical size of the lightbox or the light table.  The field of vision was limited, but a wide range of activities and tasks were performed within that specific area – gazing, drifting, focusing in, pulling back, magnifying, assessing, comparing, imagining, judging, discarding, and choosing. On a physical surface, individual 35mm slides and large format transparencies could be shuffled, re-arranged, and laid out in different configurations, either by design or randomly. This method of display led to unexpected patterns, happy accidents, and new congruences, and revealed valuable associations and links, but also uncovered unforeseen dissonance and disconnection. In the digital realm, the room for such possibilities must be built into the system before the user gets there. At the moment Pinterest’s display is limited in terms of switching the order of images, but there are other sites where drag-and-drop technologies are already being used, and further advances will surely follow. Who would find this function valuable? The answer is creative professionals – designers, advertisers, publishers, and photo researchers – and anyone who sends messages, provokes reactions, and attracts attention primarily through visual rather than textual means.

For the photo researcher, the process of choosing images for a client’s project is at its core an act of translation. The criteria for the image request may arrive by email, with a phone call, or sometimes (though rarely) in person. Written descriptions of what the client is after tend to provide more details, and may lay out specific search parameters around how the image should look (e.g. daytime/night, full body/head shot, outdoor/indoor, business wear/casual). A conversation is often needed to round out the request, especially when themes, mood, and tone are specified. What message should the image convey? How are abstract ideas conveyed visually? Does my idea of what freedom looks like match yours? What about loyalty, or beauty, or excitement?

It is easier to get at what someone really means by talking to them – even better if you are face-to-face. On Websites like Pinterest, where there is limited control over where a particular image sits within the display, there are some tricks you can use to influence your decision-maker. An easy one is to place what you consider to be the best images at the top, so they hit your client’s field of vision first, with no scrolling or delay in getting to them. How well did you do? It depends on both the pool of images – the raw materials – that are available, and how closely your choices match your client’s vision.  Success hinges on how effective you are at transforming, or translating, your client’s words – written or verbal – into an image. Visual content research is an iterative and creative process that draws on visual literacy skills.


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